One really cool feature of the zoo is that they have “roaming” animals: handlers walk around with a critter so you can meet them up close.  We met lizards, snakes and birds this way (but missed the tiger cubs –sniff!).  There are scheduled feedings you can attend as well as a brief show in the stadium each day -called "The Crocoseum”!  While the crocs are maybe meant to be the highlight here, the birds stole the show!  They flew around inside the stadium with a show synchronized to music, all shapes and sizes from the beautiful lorikeet to the impressive condor.

What a fantastic day, I felt like a little kid.  And I now have some 700 photos to process.

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16 December 2013…   Year End Wrap Up

A couple of months back, a dear friend asked some very sincere questions.  We have been blessed by so many of you who have been following our trip, keeping in touch and sending your good wishes and vibes our way.  But Kelli caught me off guard with a very particular set of questions that really made me think about my response.  Questions about how the boat is holding out.  How we’re holding out!  And whether the trip is meeting our expectations or not.  Today marks the end of the first year and it seems a worthy milestone to post this.  The following was my honest response to a good friend. 
And then… back to waiting.  Allow me to harp on this whole weather thing a moment.  It’s been bad weather for the last 6 weeks now, with few relief intervals.  Furthermore, it’s been very inconsistent, with the outlook changing unreasonably almost every day.  Add to that the fact that the weather files for this region don’t seem to be accurate, either.  It’s been frustrating and exhausting to plan routes.  We don’t have a lot of experience with weather patterns in this part of the world but we’ve spoken to a lot of people who do and they say it’s been an odd year.  Go figure!

And so we twiddle our thumbs and obsess with the weather sites.  We’ve caught up with friends who were well ahead of us who’ve been stalled out here in New Caledonia for weeks waiting on a good weather window.  The general consensus among our little cruising community here is that we’re all just anxious to get there!!  For some, it's the last leg of their trip and for others of us, we're just ready for a break from all this racing!  Given that it’s getting later in the season and the tradewinds seem to have dried up, we’re starting to think that there will be no ideal window; we’ll just have to take the best one possible and deal with what comes enroute.

21 November 2013…   False Start

We did it.  We grabbed a small window and hustled out of Noumea this afternoon with 2 hours’ notice.  Since we’ve been waiting around so long, we were pretty much ready to go.  Sad again to say goodbye to good friends as Gallinago and Calico Jack headed in opposite directions leaving the harbour after almost 2 months of cruising together.  Matt & Charlotte intend to make landfall further south than us.  On the bright side, we’ll definitely be seeing them again at some point!

Once out of the harbour, it didn’t take long for us to discover that –SURPRISE!!- the wind direction wasn’t as forecasted.  This had us beating into increasing wind and waves and after 3 short hours, we decided to anchor up off the small island M’ba for the night and hope for better winds in the morning.  And it’s been quite pleasant, actually!  Since I did all the frantic cooking for the trip yesterday, we just slacked off and watched movies.  This morning had the winds switching to a better direction and the new weather files show more favourable conditions for the end of the trip as well.  A couple more hours to kill here and we’ll head for the pass before sunset and be on our way to Australia with a better outlook.  “Are we finally getting it right for a change?” I asked.  The Captain responded, “I think we’re just doing it less wrong….”  Neurotically monitoring the weather over the last few weeks, there have just been no right answers.

Photos: New Caledonia (coming soon...)

28 November 2013…   Good Omens

Just as we were pulling up the anchor at M’Ba Island, a weather cell whipped in and we were stuck with the very same conditions that we had anchored to avoid in the first place!  We could see the light on the horizon though (literally), and we plodded on.  We were rewarded with a perfect rainbow that seemed to terminate only a few yards from the boat plus a pod of particularly acrobatic dolphins.  They were probably about 50 in number with many of them doing airborne twists!  They were quite the little performers and we always take dolphins as a good omen when we are setting out or finishing a crossing.  That and the rainbow had us off to a good start!

The crossing itself was a bit of a mixed bag but we were anticipating that.  I’m pleased to report that we’ve devised a way to receive weather files through our satellite mail service and now we can get forecasts offshore.  Therefore, no surprises.  We had zero wind for about half the trip and we burned a lot of fuel.  We were hoping to test out our new spinnaker that we bought in New Caledonia but what breezes there were, were right on the nose, so no dice.  The seas were freakishly calm and the gentle motion of the ocean looked like the sway of the wheat fields at home in Saskatchewan, something Travis had commented on years ago but I had yet to see.  It was really quite beautiful if you ignored the fact that said conditions were slaughtering the fuel budget!

Speaking of slaughtering, we were anticipating a good haul of fish on this transit.  We’re not allowed to bring most meats into Australia but fish caught underway are acceptable so we were on a mission to fill our empty freezer with some free grub –even fantasizing about breaking out the spare freezer!  However, our lousy track record endures.  We managed to land one good-sized mahi and two skipjack tuna which are a bit on the dark side but we like them done up fish-fry style.  So all in all, we scored only 5 meals which was a surprise on a 7-day crossing.  We also lost Ru Paul, but he was getting pretty beat up anyway.  And so the fish continue to mock us…

About halfway through the transit the wind picked up, and from the right direction no less!  We turned off the engine and had a great sail the rest of the way into Burnett Heads/Bundaberg.  Conditions were even good enough that their “gulfstream” current was a kitten –wind against waves in these areas can get nasty.  All in all, it was a pleasant crossing and our good omen at the other end was yet another pod of dolphins.  There had to have been a couple hundred of them and their sheer numbers created a flurry in the water!  They were funny, though, because they seemed to display no interest in us at all –not to sound cocky or anything!  It’s just unusual for them not to come and play in the bow wake.  These guys seemed to be on their way somewhere and we were just passing on the street.  Funny.

Be it good omen or bad, I saw a UFO on the way in, too.  I’m not saying it was an alien ship, I just don’t know what the heck it was.  Overhead, low-flying, lit up like an airplane.  Too slow for a meteor, it moved silently across the sky for about 10 seconds and disappeared.  No, I hadn’t been drinking or woken from sleep!  Just plain weird.  I’m not sure where that sits on the omen scale but it’s much more unusual than a rainbow!

Customs, Immigration and Biosecurity were johnny-on-the-spot: as we arrived they were waiting on the dock to catch our lines.  Check-in took about 2 hours as the Biosecurity guy had to inspect just about every square inch of the boat looking for evidence of termites.  After all the horror stories we’d heard about checking in to Australia, this was their main concern.  Very little in the way of foodstuffs were taken: so long as they were bug-free and properly packaged they were ok.  Our wooden and handwoven items and shells were all approved without needing fumigating.  But if he’d found any trace of termites, we would have been screwed –it’s about $7000 to tent your boat here, ouch!!  We’re all good, though, and everyone was so courteous and friendly that even though our boat needed reassembling after they left I’d still have to say that the whole experience was actually a pleasure.  We’re back in the land of friendly people and we’ve been welcomed to Australia at every turn.  It’s awesome.  (Funny sidebar: Our friend Mark who did this trip about 30 years ago scoffed at the whole termite inspection thing because when he passed through he actually GOT termites in Australia!  He wasn’t able to get rid of them until he procured some nasty, banned-in-most-countries bug dope in South Africa!)

So if I need to come right out and say it: we’re so happy to be here!!  It feels like the end of a long slog and now we can relax a little – we’re looking forward to daytripping!  We’re here in Burnett Heads only for the night, camped out on the quarantine dock.  We’re not allowed into the marina proper because we don’t carry insurance –hopefully that won’t be too much of a problem here- but they were nice enough to allow us to stay here tonight.  We’ve been into the small town for supplies at a proper grocery store.  It was like the gates of heaven were opening as the little automatic gate swung open!  Dairy?  Normal meats?  Fruits and veggies of all varieties??  I had to fan myself for fear of fainting.  Now if we could find some fast internet we’d really be rocking!!

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04 December 2013…   Memorable Maryborough

We have a few days to spend in the Great Sandy Straits before our next weather window to head south so we decided to head up the Mary River to the city of Maryborough.  River cruising is fun but it can be challenging as we had to time our entry carefully to make it over two shallow spots.  We were golden, though, as high tide here has the water level increasing by 9-10 feet (!) and we were carried along by a 2-3 knot current, sharing the muddy water with scads and scads of interesting blue jellyfish.

We’re in love with Maryborough!  There’s so much history here and the old buildings are mostly all still in use and beautifully maintained.  This was once an important international port and it just barely lost out to Brisbane in the race to be the state capital.  Brisbane grew and developed and Maryborough remained small and awesome as far as I’m concerned!  If the history and beauty weren’t enough, the city is home to many skilled craftspeople and artists and there’s a palpable sense of pride here if you’re keen to pay attention to the little details.  We took a walking tour through the old port district past pubs, hotels, churches and public office buildings dating back to the 1800s; through garden parks with fountains and 200-year-old trees; even the river itself is an imposing presence and the area has quite the history of flooding.  Most recently, the community was caught off guard this past January (in the off-season) with an extra 36 feet of water rushing down the river and some businesses are only just now reopening.  The river has been challenging even just for us visitors!  With the crazy tides, landing one’s dinghy is always interesting and we checked on it every couple of hours to make sure it wasn’t pinned up under the dock or hanging from its line.  On one occasion, Travis had to venture into knee-high muddy-mud to rescue our high-and-dry tender!  As per bigger boats, they seemed to wander around on their own at anchor as they meandered with the strong and changing currents.

Naturally, Maryborough has many museums to while away your time and we spent an afternoon touring the Military and Colonial Museum which houses some 7000 items –talk about mind-boggling!  Next we went to the Bond Store which is where booze, perfume, opium and other taxable goods were stored upon being imported.  And we ended a rushed afternoon with a visit to the Customs House where you’re inundated with Mary Poppins memorabilia from the get-go.  PL Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was born here and that fact flavours things both big and small in the old district.  There’s a bronze statue of the no-nonsense nanny outside the author’s birthplace (on the re-named Cherry Tree Lane), engravings of some of the stories line one street, and smaller touches like the Pop In Café add charm to the neighbourhood.

We really enjoyed our visit here despite the fact that our timing wasn’t spot on.  Thursdays are when the city really livens up with many more of its venues open and a public market with fresh produce and artisans’ booths.  A replica of the old steam engine, the Mary Ann, also operates on Thursdays and the last weekend of the month is packed with activities.  If we have the time, we’d love to stop in on the way back up the coast and we’ll have to time things accordingly.  Having said that, we didn’t at all mind the mid-week quiet as we felt like we were the only tourists in town –at least by boat.  It was like we had the place all to our lucky selves.

10 December 2013…   Good Friends, Koalas & Roos

Our whole reason for stopping in Mooloolaba was to see a friend of mine from Saskatchewan that I haven’t seen in 15 years or so.  I had met her husband only once way back when, and their son was a mere infant at the time.  Well, what a great time we had finding them again!  It was our plan to have them aboard and treat them.  As it turns out, we only got it partially right, at best (read: only the “aboard” part).  Both Aimee and Dion work in the industry and we were spoiled absolutely rotten with a fantastic meal at a restaurant where they both have connections.  Red, white and bubbly, plus fabulous food…  We are definitely back in the civilized world!  Add some great company and we felt like royalty.  Not sure how we’re going to go back to boxed wine after this!

Our friends crashed aboard Calico Jack and the following day they took us to their home in Noosa, about 30 minutes north.  Now Dion & Aimee aren’t boaters themselves but somehow, intuitively, they know their way to our hearts.  They plugged us into internet for the afternoon, offered us hot showers and “hey, you should have brought your laundry”.  They also carted us all over the place to run errands it would have taken exponentially more time to do without their help.  Hanging out with a teenager was actually a lot of fun (who knew?!) and to boot, they had two great dogs and a pair of cats to love on so we got our pet fix too!  Another fantastic day concluded with a dog-run on the beach and some great mexican before Aimee brought us back to the boat.  She stayed aboard so she could take us to the zoo the following day (like they hadn’t already done enough!).

The Australia Zoo is Steve Irwin’s baby.  We in the States & Canada see him as a bit of a kook, I think, because of his antics.  It could be a Queenslander thing: I recently read one person’s opinion that residents of this state are “madder than cut snakes –madder than a sack of them. You’ll like it up there.”  Apparently he was always that amped up –it wasn’t just an act for the cameras- and some of us abroad didn’t take him seriously as a result.  Well let it be said that he was a serious proponent of animal conservation and did a lot to help save species on the brink, and beyond only those that are endangered in this country (there are breeding programs for both the giraffe and the white rhino, for example).  Steve Irwin was passionate about saving animals of all shapes, sizes and levels of cuteness and profits from his zoo continue to go directly to his endeavours, including an onsite wildlife hospital.


The following morning, we were invited to a celebration at the village.  A haircutting ceremony is the coming-of-age party for young men when they turn 18.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to witness the haircutting part but Pilot (yes, that’s his name) was escorted to the village square by family members and seated in a place of honour.  There were a few words spoken by the chief and then we all paid our respects by offering our congratulations and gifts (curiously, most of the gifts were housewares).  And Momma cried, oh she was crying saying goodbye to her little boy!!  And then lots of food and music and LOTS of dancing!  The ladies donned colourful long grass skirts and swayed to the music for hours.  The locals provided the music, large groups of them with guitars and drums and voices aplenty.  We made our exit at about noon but apparently there would be more dancing until mid-day –and then the kava comes out!  We thought this party was a rarity but with a celebration for each boy and a similar coming-of-age ceremony for each girl, too, it must make for a lot of shindigs because there were tons of kids when all the villages came together!  We were happy to be included.

That night was the much-anticipated visit to Mt. Yasur, the world’s most accessible active volcano.  It was another lumpy trip via 4x4, only now it was raining.  There must be some point where these roads become impassible!  We held on for dear life in the back of the truck and the road took us to within 300 metres of the summit.  As we exited the vehicle, she was rumbling her greetings already and we were pretty excited despite the inclement weather.  We arrived before sunset when you can get a pretty good view of the surroundings but nothing beats the fireworks show once the sun sets!  There’s no way you’d be allowed that close to projectile rocks and percolating, spewing hot magma in our part of the world yet there we were, teetering on the volcano’s rim sans guard rail.  I seldom even used the zoom on the camera, we were so close!  Soon, the clouds rolled in so we couldn't see as well but the impressive rumbling and blasting continued.  There were a couple of occasions where it felt like we were hit by a sonic boom -you could feel the blast on your face and the earth shook.  It made me jump a couple of times!  What we were experiencing was a 2 on a scale of 1 to 5 (they’ll only do tours 1-3) but apparently the rain increases the pressure so it could elevate to a 3 or 4 in a matter of minutes and we had to leave early. What an amazing experience being that close to such an awesome force of nature!

On the ride back, we decided that it definitely wasn’t our imaginations: the truck was speeding along the flooded, compromised roads at a much quicker rate –relatively speaking, anyway.  This wasn’t much to be concerned about: as the sides were flanked by cutbanks there was only so far we could skid off the road and it’s not like we were racing along at 100mph!  We laughed, though, because we figured the driver was bummed he was missing the kava party.  It’s worth mentioning that kava here is much different than the Fijian kava we experienced.  The main difference is that they use the fresh root here, rather than the dried, making it much more pungent and potent.  The dried root in Fiji, if you recall, was pounded to a powder that was put in a cloth filter before being mixed with water.  Here, the fresh root is chewed by virgin boys, spit out, mashed with water and consumed unfiltered.  While this lends a certain ick-factor, Travis and Matt were still considering trying it (we girls aren’t allowed) but it never came to pass.  If we were to head up to the capital of Port Vila, kava bars are very popular and we could try it there where, incidentally, the roots are processed with more hygienic meat grinders!

But unfortunately, our Vanuatu visit will be limited to Tanna.  Wind direction dictates our movements here and if we were to head further north up the coast to Port Vila, we would be stuck beating our way back down against the wind to New Caledonia.  Alternatively, we could bypass NewCal completely skipping over the top of it and heading straight to Oz but that’s a much longer run without adequate weather forecasting.  We’re just not willing to beat ourselves up, or the boat.  I wish we could even stay just a little longer here in Tanna –it would be great to visit the volcano again in better weather!- but we’ve just learned that there’s another weather system rolling in so we have to be on our way tomorrow after only 5 days. (Incidentally, this leaves us unable to check in and out of the country so our visit here has essentially been illegal -we’ll have to see how that works out on the other end.)  I feel that missing Vanuatu will be one of our real regrets of the trip –we’d really been looking forward to this stop.  However, there’s not a lot we can do about it, so onward we go.  Sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

Photos: Vanuatu

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17 November 2013…   Waiting…

It was another brisk run the first day out of Tanna but it evened out on the second day as we arrived on the southern end of Terre Grande, New Caledonia –we even got treated to a rare bit of sunshine (“what IS that big bright orb?!”).  We anchored up in a lovely bay for the night before making our way to the capital of Noumea the next morning.  Once we were actually situated, check-in was easy and there were no complications with our little illegal stint in the last port –we just didn’t mention that we were even there, and they didn’t seem to care about details one way or the other.

Well, what to say about Noumea?  I’ve overthought, written and re-written this paragraph in an attempt to be PC but now I’m just gonna say it: the French here are grumpy.  I’m sorry to all my wonderful French friends who are not grumpy, but that’s the way of it here.  I’m not saying it’s all of them.  I’m not even saying it’s a French thing because the French in French Polynesia seemed very happy.  Maybe they actually wanted to be there.  Here, a lot of the French from the motherland are just doing their time to make bank for a while and obviously they’d just rather be back in France.  We’ve seen some very sour faces and it’s strange to have people actually avoid eye contact with you on the street.  While I suppose the eye-contact behavior is perhaps no different than what we’d be experiencing in any big North American city (I mean, you can’t smile and say hello to absolutely everybody you pass), it’s a stark contrast to what we’ve become accustomed to.  However, I won’t attribute this sourness to a “city” thing either because we didn’t experience that in Suva or Papeete.  Apparently tensions are high here right now as another referendum is coming up to vote for the nation’s independence from France.  The Aboriginal people (the Kanaks) are deeply resentful of the local French and there’s a long, bloody history here as the two factions fight for the rights to this nickel-rich group of islands.  Thus, it’s in our best interests not to be mistaken for French(!) but in our experience here, the Kanaks have been nothing but warm and friendly.  So we’re back to square one: many of the French are just deeply unhappy here.

But on the bright side, “city” means amenities and this is the most First World we’ve been for a long time.  The market is close to the marina and the well-stocked grocery/liquor store is right down the street.  And yes, we’re in a marina.  Also weird.
After that fantastic stop, we were really fast-tracking it.  Our next port of call was Musket Cove on Malololailai Island but it was a bit of a letdown.  We’d heard how great it was so our expectations were high but we found it a bit overdeveloped and lacklustre.  To be fair, I think we just arrived at a slow time for them as their big regatta had been a couple of weeks before.  It was also raining for the duration of our visit so that was a bit of a damper –our one venture out in the kayak left us quite soggy.  So we were glad for good company as Gallinago was still with us and we enjoyed a great BBQ with them, miraculously between rainclouds.

Conversely, we were warned at the last minute that Mana was a crowded, over-developed nightmare of an island but we went anyway and loved it!  It’s half backpacker resorts, half high-end resort and we'd read that a high wall separates them.  Pfft..  The “high wall” was nothing more than a picket fence (with an open gate!) and we sensed none of the animosity we had read about.  Instead of the frenzy we were expecting, we found it quite chill and the backpacker quotient gave it a dash of character that we appreciated.  One of the lodges had a beach bonfire the first night and we were anxious to do a dive, even though it didn’t work out.  Given a few extra days, we could have really grown into this little gem but we were pressed for time and had to move on.

Lautoka is our last stop here in Fiji and we're surprised at what a clean, pleasant city it is.  We’d been told that it’s a nasty pit-of-a-town for all the ash from the burning sugarcane that rains down on everything.  We were spared today, but the burning started this evening.  No big deal, as we’re out of dodge in the morning.  Fiji has been a great stop, albeit too short and plagued by bad weather.  We’re already scheming to get back here!

Photos: Fiji I  &  Fiji II

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06 November 2013…   Attention All Visitors: Please Park your Boats to the Left of the Smouldering Volcano

The weatherman was wrong again and it was a pretty sporty run between Fiji and Vanuatu, the lumpiest we’ve had since the transit between Bora Bora and the Cooks (minus a TV to the face, so I guess it could have been worse!).  For a while, it looked possible to do the trip in 3½ days instead of 4 and we hemmed and hawed for half a day wondering whether or not to crank up the engine, get out of this crap and be in the anchorage for happy hour and a good night’s sleep.  In the end, however, we had to slow our approach for a morning arrival.  But the reward!!  As we approached the island of Tanna before daybreak, the glow of the active volcano lit up the clouds above it, pulsating pink and yellow.  Pretty amazing and totally worth the extra 12 hours!  I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

Calico Jack and Gallinago set the hook in Port Resolution on a Saturday morning next to the cliffs with the fumaroles.  Our 10-year-old guidebook tells us that there is no swimming allowed in the adjacent hot springs as the locals use them for cooking!  These days, there’s a big “Welcome to the Hot Springs” sign but we don’t see how bathing here would ever be a possibility as it’s too hot to even stick your toe in!  Maybe when it mixes with sea water at high tide…  

After going ashore to make the arrangements to check in with customs and immigration on Monday, we enjoyed just chilling out for the weekend.  We feel like it’s been go-go-go for the last month –travelling can be hard work, you know!  Especially on a boat, it’s not all bonbons and daiquiris (although, sometimes it is!).  We had a couple of visitors paddle up, some looking for just a chat, others looking for something in particular.  They were polite and friendly and always had something in return when they came back which is how we acquired a cucumber the size of a skinny football –seriously, it was amazing!  And an invitation back to the garden to shop for more goodies.
Afterward, we were unexpectedly invited to their feast.  It consisted of several dishes with almost all ingredients coming from their own land.  And of course, several bowls of kava were drunk.  It was truly a special evening and we were really made to feel a part of their community.  It’s a difficult sentiment to express but we all found ourselves going out of our way to reciprocate their warmth, generosity and sense of community spirit by helping out wherever we could.  They needed new bands for their spear gun and we had a set to spare; one little girl had burned herself so the boys ran out to the boat for a medical book and some ointment; even kids’ DVDs were appreciated.  All these favours were well-received and they reciprocated once again by refilling our scuba tanks –we felt we couldn’t do enough!

Makogai has been a very unique experience and it’s impressive to see how these outer-islands have managed to hold on to their traditional customs and beliefs.  This area of the Pacific as a whole is still very traditional, including their dress.  In Tonga, I had to break out my capri pants as ladies shouldn’t have exposed knees or shoulders.  Apart from actually going shirtless, men can pretty much get away with whatever except for wearing hats when dealing with officials.  The majority of local men choose to wear the traditional “sulu”, which is a heavy, tailored skirt that ends mid-calf.  Here in Fiji, the customs in the out-islands are even more “strict” (for an island girl who likes her shorts, anyway!) and I had to dig out a sarong to wear into the village for not even long pants were acceptable.  Yep, me running around in a long skirt –even on that long hike I previously mentioned!  Men can sit cross-legged but women should sit with legs tucked up beside so Charlotte and I spent a few hours trying to shift inconspicuously to keep circulation in the limbs!  Mercifully (and after a few bowls of kava!) we were invited to stretch out and relax.  And while I’m making it sound like I’ve been terribly put out, it’s funny how quickly one gets used to the local customs.  Not long ago, I wore a pair of shorts just to make a quick trip to the dock and I felt conspicuously naked!  So we’ll appreciate and honour these deep-rooted traditions as long as we can because all-too-soon we’ll be moving on and wishing we were back here.

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29 October 2013…   The Big City and Beyond 

The capital city of Suva was a bit of a shock to the system after the solace and natural beauty of Makogai!  This was the most industrial area we’d been to since the Panama Canal.  Some consider Suva to be the hub of the South Pacific and it was abuzz with traffic, construction, tourism and business.  Not really our speed, but a stop here was necessary as we needed to sort out our Australian visas which we took care of straightaway.  The process at the agency seemed quite simple as we were in and out in a miraculous 35 minutes, but then the fun and games began later when they started to email us with questions like:  “Are you arriving in Australia by boat?  We realize you are traveling the world by boat, but are you arriving here by boat?”  Yeesh, we did state that we were arriving by sea –they even had a copy of our boat paperwork!  Then, “You now need to fill out the forms for an MCV visa in order to be considered.  You have seven days.”  (We were offshore again when we got this one!)  It looked like it was going to turn into a nightmare and made us wonder why we used an agency to “facilitate” things at all, but in the end we got it sorted out with only minimal hair-pulling, $300 later.

We were stuck in Suva with weather again for almost a week.  Not that there wasn't shopping and museums and things to do, but we're just running out of time here in Fiji and wanted to keep moving.  Still, we made the most of it.  The museum was very good and we spent a morning wandering around its halls.  They have a collection of life-sized traditional rafts, a room full of stuffed local animals, birds, bugs and plants, and of course a full history of the region which was quite bloody at times.  Ancient warriors’ tools of pillaging were all made of hardwood and there was a full display of neck breakers, skull crushers, belly rippers and the like.  Cannibalism was once prevalent here, too.  There is a well-documented case where in 1867 they killed and ate an English missionary and his crew.  This sort of thing was common, but only among Fijians –Europeans weren’t touched.  This display case featured bowls and tools used in his, ummm, dinner, including the interesting round, four-pronged fork affectionately dubbed “The Brainpicker”.  Modern-day Fijians have gone to some lengths to make amends for this incident, having hosted as recently as 2003 a “Forgiveness Ceremony” where the missionary’s great-grandniece and her immediate family were hosted.  Yes, hosted, not served.

We whiled away only a little time at the local artisan market.  There were actually very few shops that had authentic goods on offer –most were cheaply made knockoffs -and some of the vendors were relentless so we ran away.  More interesting was the prison art gallery!!  The prison is actually right across the street from the marina but before you get the impression that hardened convicts are locked up behind sterile walls only a stone’s throw away from where we were sleeping, let me first say that this prison has quite a bit of character.  Built in 1912, it’s a heritage building in its own right and is quite impressive even behind its razor wire!  We wandered into the unassuming, cheery little art gallery across the street to find happy, smiling “prisoners” in their orange jumpsuits working in oil paints and carving raw wood with chisels.  Yes, chisels!  In the hands of convicts only a few metres away from freedom, Sweet Freedom!!  This was obviously a minimum security facility but it was nonetheless a bit bizarre to be welcomed in like it was a tea room.  One friendly guy gave us the rundown on his work, some of which was to be entered into a national competition.  Many styles and mediums were represented and some of the artwork was quite good!

As the week marched on, we were starting to feel crunched for time.  Three weeks was turning into four and there was still a lot we wanted to do.  Our next stop was to be Beqa/Pacific Harbour where we were all excited to do a shark dive but since the weather wasn’t cooperating, Matt had the great idea to make our way over there by land rather than taking our boats.  Weather was still an issue since we didn’t even know until that very morning if the trip would be running but we ended up hopping in a cab at the last minute, gambling that we would even be able to see our hands in front of our faces: the water was bound to be stirred up, as it had been blowing for several days at that point.  Indeed, after a bucking-bronco boat ride out to the site, we jumped into the turbid waters and looked down to see……. nothing.  Fortunately, the visibility at 85ft was much better and we were lined up behind a cordoned off section to watch the ringmaster’s show as they dumped garbage cans full of chum into the water.  This resulted in an amazing cyclone of fish, only small to medium ones at first.  Then, within just a few minutes, the bigger sharks started to show up to add to the whirlwind.  One of the divers was even hand-feeding them fish heads!

Well, let’s just say that it was a comfort to know that these bad boys are well-fed, otherwise, we wouldn't want to be that up-close-and-personal with bull sharks and lemon sharks!  The biggest one was 10 feet long and of considerable girth!!  He was huge and toothy.  And close.  Really close.  Did I mention that this dive site is called The Bistro? 

The weather smartened up and we made a speedy run to Likuri Island.  We had calculated it as an overnight run but we made such great time that we had to slow down for a daytime entry through the pass.  I hate having to rein in Calico Jack -it's like punishing her for being an overachiever!  There must have been a current as we were doing an easy 7 knots.
A very special gift the next day: a trip to Mariner’s Cave and the Coral Gardens.  These two locations were on our wish list but they are difficult to accomplish.  The Cave has nowhere to anchor your boat outside (even if your dinghy has the legs to make it there); the Gardens are accessible only by, again, a long dinghy ride, then walking over the reef at low tide.  We’d written both of them off as options.  Much to our surprise, Colin & Jeannie aboard Divided Sky offered to take us there –we could enjoy the sights and they would float around until we were finished.  They are seasoned cruisers to this area and have been to both locations before.  Their kids were supposed to be visiting them now, but didn’t make it and Col & Jeannie said that it would give them great joy to do this for us, their “kids for the day”.  How kind!  So the crew of Calico Jack, Osprey and Gallinago all piled onto Divided Sky for a fabulous afternoon.

Mariner’s Cave was a bit of a challenge to find as it’s not visible from the outside: you have to snorkel down 6ft, then inside 15ft to access it.  It was a deeeeeep breath I hoped would take me inside!  I don’t consider myself a strong freediver (I’m a floater without a weight belt!) and it stretched my limits to get in there.  My guidebook says it’s a bit like bungee jumping: not for everyone!  Travis the Fish snorkeled the alternate entrance 40ft down.  Fish.  As per the cave itself, the legend goes that a young chief was in love with a village woman whose family had been sentenced to death by a tyrannical leader.  To save her life, he spirited her away to this cave, returning each night with food and water.  She hid here for a few months until he was able to arrange their escape to Fiji.  And happily ever after.  It’s a neat cave and the only light inside comes from the underwater entrance.  The seal is so tight that when the waves crash against it, the water compresses the air inside fast enough to produce a foggy mist that’s surreal.  (Skeptical as to how the fair maiden was able to survive in a cave with no evident source of fresh air?   So was William Mariner, and he set out to find an opening.  He was unsuccessful, however it was discovered later that there actually is a fissure but it’s only exposed at low tide.)

After a nice lunch enroute, Divided Sky dropped the 6 of us back in the water near the Coral Gardens.  Here was hands-down the most beautiful, healthy coral we've ever seen; so many different colours and varieties, and not a dead patch to be found.  Ironically, we spotted a Crown of Thorns Starfish –it’s beautiful, but a problem because it's eating all the coral.  And we even got to visit with two octopus dudes who were a surprise since they rarely show themselves in daylight hours.  The icing on the cake is that we enjoyed it all to the sounds of whale music -you could hear them singing underwater!  All in all, it was a pretty outstanding day, thanks to two thoughtful friends.

27 September 2013…   Bittersweet

Most of the remainder of our time in Tonga has been spent in the “big city”.  We were headed out again to explore some of the eastern islands when we received word that our friends on Dragonsbane would be arriving soon so we decided to wait up for them.  They’re divers, too, and we wanted to coordinate some underwater fun.  We thought we would start south of the main harbour but we were informed that the wreck there is just too washed out with jellyfish.  Indeed, the moon jellies have been out in impressive numbers in the mooring field, too.  When we turn on the underwater lights at night, Calico Jack looks to be floating on a cloud!  So we just headed back to Port Morelle instead, and ducked around the corner to dive Mariner’s Cave again with Dragonsbane as the mother ship this time.  I actually didn’t get in the water, opting instead to lend my gear to Jess who’d never been diving before.  Travis is a great teacher and gave her a resort course.  The smiles and exclamations when she surfaced were about as cool as doing the dive myself!

So we never did see the eastern islands, but that’s ok.  Our Tonga experience has been more about who we’ve seen, not what we’ve seen and there’s been a lot of partying!  We were in town for another open mic night which is always fun and we also took in a performance of Augustine’s Circus, a quirky one-man-show with puppets and fleas….  And twice, a gaggle of us all went down the road for the Faka Lahti show.  “Faka” means “in the likeness of” and “lahti” (pronounced “lay-tee”) comes from the English word “lady”.  Yep, it was a Polynesian drag show and these girls put on quite the performance!  Sure, it’s not up to the caliber of some of our Key West talent, as they’re all lip-synching; but having gone two weeks in a row there should have been some redundant performances –especially considering there are only three of them- however, they kept it fresh with new songs and costumes.  They were very enthusiastic and hilarious as they toyed with the boys in the audience!  Apart from the strictly modern stuff, they did some traditional fusion numbers which were the best of all.

Neiafu has been such an enjoyable stop that we actually considered staying here for cyclone season.  It’s well protected and isn’t generally that active, anyway.  We did a fair bit of research and considered it seriously as it’s a pretty economical place to hang out.  However, the deciding factor was that we’d be stuck here for a full 8 months.  While we’d still fly to Australia and New Zealand as planned, Calico Jack couldn’t leave Tonga until May and, well, we’re just not done travelling yet!  Australia will be considerably more expensive but we feel we’ll get more bang for our buck there as we’ll be able to cruise the southern coast until cyclone season passes, thus seeing a lot more of the country.  So we eat rice and beans.

September has zipped by so quickly and we’re almost into October –time to get moving, as we have 3 more countries to see!  And so we bid a fond farewell to Tonga.  We’ve truly enjoyed it here, but it’s bittersweet as we say goodbye to many of our friends who are heading directly to New Zealand.  I’ve mentioned before how solid friendships are formed so quickly out here.  We’ve been buddy-boating with Osprey through the last 3 countries and their company has been a pleasure.  What’s more, Osprey is the only boat that goes about as slow as Calico Jack does, so we can do 4-day transits and always have them in sight!  We’ll sure miss them, but we look forward to seeing them in New Zealand along with a number of other good friends.

We thought we’d be on our way today but a snafu at the fuel dock has us here one more night.  So it’s been happy hour aboard Calico Jack one more time, then we’re headed for Fiji tomorrow.

Photos:  Tonga

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10 October 2013… Bula!! from Fiji

The run between Tonga and Fiji was easily the nicest crossing that we've had on the whole, entire trip!  With great wind and reasonable wave action, I found myself in the cockpit on night watch thinking, “This is actually quite pleasant!”  They were perfect sailing conditions for tubby little Calico Jack, too, as we arrived not long after all the faster boats making the same crossing –(sniff!) we're so proud of our girl!

We arrived in Savusavu and braced ourselves to deal with the officials as we were told that it was a lengthy process and they are quite thorough.  Much to our surprise, all the officials had come and gone in the space of about 90 minutes, and no-one even stepped inside the boat!  There were some general questions about foodstuffs, but nothing was taken away.  The guys were super pleasant and chatty, making us wonder what all the kafuffle is about.  We had only to go into town and make two easy stops for payment to health and biosecurity.  Apparently we didn’t need to go to all the trouble of transferring our liqueurs to smaller bottles to stash away!

Savusavu was great –here’s another delightful little town one could get stuck in for a while!  It’s not very touristy and it has great markets and just about anything you could need within only a few short blocks.  Moreover, everything is so cheap -maybe we can get caught up on our budget here!  It's nice to be able to afford to eat out every once in a while and we certainly got our curry on!  At $5 a pop, it was hard to pass up and we topped it all off with an Indian cooking class, to boot.  I had no idea there was such a large Indian population here (a remnant of the indentured slaves of yesteryear).  

We spent a full week in Savusavu waiting on weather again and while we thoroughly enjoyed it, it was time to get a move on.  Four weeks won’t be nearly enough to see everything Fiji has to offer, but we knew that coming in.  We'll be missing the Lau Group altogether which are touted to be the most traditional and beautiful of the islands but they are really accessible only to those who are here for the season and can afford to sit and wait for the weather to allow them to go back east.  Of course, it is precisely this lack of accessibility that has preserved the traditions and charm of the Lau Group of islands, no doubt.  Oh, to have a whole season here...  Don't think it hasn't been discussed!

It was a smooth-as-silk run to Koro which sounds pleasant until you stop to consider that we had to motor the whole way =$$$!  The wind was just starting to pick up as we arrived but we used the time on the crossing to scrub down the cockpit and we even managed to hook a little Bigeye tuna –our first sushi grade tuna of the trip!  He wasn’t huge, but big enough.  With rice and veg we stretched it to dinner for four, inviting our friends aboard Gallinago, and it was fantastic.  Heck, tuna aside, we were happy to have caught anything at all!  I’ll qualify this by saying that the fishing has been good but the catching: not so much.  We lost 3 good lures on the way over: Mohawk Kenny, the Red Headed Stepchild and Ol’ Grandad (sorry, Sean!).  What’s more frustrating is that we get the fish all the way to the back of the boat and lose them at the last second.  We need a longer gaff!  So it’s been a bit of a dry spell as the last fish we managed to get onboard was on our way into Tonga, and that one bitch-slapped Travis –OMG that was hilarious to see from behind!!  It was a most excellently placed tail slap to the face (you know it must have been funny, because I never say “OMG”!).  She sure told him.

Koro isn’t so traditional on the northwest side of the island where we were anchored.  It’s all privately owned by expats who were happy to see some new faces in town!  As we entered the resort ashore, we were worried that we were intruding on their party when in fact they swiftly pulled up an extra table and four chairs for us.  We were the show that night as they asked us a million questions about our boat and the trip.  The resort itself was quiet, and I guess the expats occupying its bar every night get tired of just looking at themselves after a while!  They were all super-friendly and one couple invited us up to their home for some fresh local produce.  Our friends went, but Travis and I stayed home to fuss with the autopilot.  Yes again.  And it seems that a wayward can of vegetables was the culprit this time, too!  Glad it was a simple solution, anyway.

We only stayed 2 days in Koro, but it was enough time to squeeze in a dive and snorkel where we enjoyed coral that rivals the previously-unrivaled Coral Gardens in Tonga.  I had no idea I liked coral so much!!  I guess I’ve always been disappointed by it because it’s never as pretty as what you see on the TV nature shows (corny, I know).  Well, we’ve found their video location, apparently, because it's truly stunning in this part of the world and we're marveling at the soft corals in particular.  Healthy and diverse.  It's gonna be hard to get me in the water in Key West ever again (I was already Cayman-spoiled, and now this!).  

We’re on the run again today.  Next stop: Makogai.

13 October 2013…   Back to Basics in Makogai

Makogai is our first stop at a truly traditional island and things work a little differently here.  When you drop anchor, it’s customary to proceed immediately to the village to meet the chief and ask permission to stay on his island.  We brought with us a gift of dried kava root and, once accepted, we did a “sevusevu” ceremony, a time-honoured tradition that marks many of their special occasions.   The chief said a few words and welcomed us to his island.  The kava root was then beaten to a powder, placed in what looks like an old sock and mixed with water in a huge wooden bowl called a “tanoa”. We then went through the ceremony of drinking it with him out of a coconut cup, clapping hands at the appropriate moments.  Kava is the root of a pepper plant and is mildly narcotic; it leaves your tongue and throat numb.  The taste isn’t so bad, despite its likeness to dirty, milky dishwater!  To them, this is their alcohol and they'll drink it all night until it's gone.  But unlike alcohol, they said, an evening with kava starts out loud and ends on a mellow, sleepy note!  They were happy to see us two boats pull in that day as it was Fijian Independence Day and they were up for a celebration, but were out of kava!

After the sevusevu ceremony, we are basically adopted by the village and treated as one of their own for the duration of our visit and we’ve really enjoyed our time here.  From 1911 to 1969, Makogai was a leper colony staffed by Catholic nuns and many of the old hospital buildings still remain.  There is even an old outside cinema still standing.  The island is also home to a Giant Clam breeding program.  Much like the setup in the Cook Islands that we visited, it’s a government-funded project aimed at repopulating the dwindling species.  They’re doing a similar favour for the Green Turtle; while they’re not breeding them, they’re collecting the eggs and hatching them and once mature enough, they’re released into the wild.

We took a day to do some hiking, stopping at the whale watching point.  It’s easy to find, just take a left at the mango tree!  We saw no whales that day, but the views from the top were spectacular.  We continued on to the village on the other side of the island, visited with the local preschool teacher and toured the tiny settlement with our gaggle of children as escorts.  Another day was spent in the water as we were treated to more underwater fabulousness, including Giant Clams right under their dock!
On a final happy note, many congratulations to my brother and his new wife, Farhia!  While you may be all grown up and stuff, you’ll always be Kid Brother to me.  Best wishes to you both.

Photos: Aitutaki, The Cook Islands

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05 September 2013…   Niue

Niue is its own little island nation smack dab in the middle of nowhere and one of the largest coral islands in the world.  We’d been looking forward to this little rock for the diving was to be spectacular and the whales plentiful.  Unfortunately, we got chased out by weather and we had to pack everything into a mere 5 days.  We tried to make the most of it by sharing a rental car with our friends aboard Osprey and the first day was an adventure indeed as we did all of our hiking in the driving rain -thank goodness for waterproof cameras!  We were all soaked to the bone but we persevered as there are a lot of interesting chasms, caves and pools to be discovered here.  

We checked out Togo Chasm first.  The hike down was through coral pinnacles and it was reminiscent of Hell, Grand Cayman but on a much larger scale.  We descended a long ladder to get into the chasm itself and were met with sand and palm trees!  Our guidebook describes it as looking almost North African with the contrast of the sand and trees against the “rocky wasteland”.  It’s very striking.  A little further into a cave took us to the waves pounding the shoreline –the force of the sea was incredible here and we could feel the rocks shuddering beneath us.  Picturesque Tautu (in nicer weather, anyway!) was the next stop and while we could appreciate how lovely it must be, we were sloshing around in water up to our knees –I suppose it would have helped to arrive at low tide!

The next day the weather was much more cooperative and we checked out the natural arches at Talava, once used as the lookout for raiders.  Then we took a dip in the Matapa Chasm -the former bathing spot of Niuean royalty!- and snorkeled around Limu Pools which had a variety of colourful fish.  The limestone caves at Palaha were impressive; mineral deposits make for some red and green pigmentation and the whole place looked very otherworldly.  And we finished off the tour with a visit to Avaiki.   It is the landing spot of the very first canoe and so it has much historical significance and only those of higher rank had access.  It is a large cave that opens to the sea with several crystal clear pools for swimming and snorkeling.  Beautiful.

Diving was a bit of a bust.  There was only one local shop and it was crazy-expensive and booked out weeks in advance.  They could have squeezed us in but the timing was wrong.  If we’d had more time, we could have organized our own excursions with other cruisers, however, getting out of there was a priority before the bad weather rolled in so we opted instead to do an easy dive right off the boat in the mooring field.  Since Niue has no rivers to dump sediment into its surrounding waters the clarity is incredible, making for a nice enough dive even if there wasn’t much of note to see.  Travis also snorkeled to a nearby reef in search of sea snakes.  Yep, venomous sea snakes, more venomous than many of their land-based cousins.  Fortunately, their mouths are too tiny and their fangs set too far back in their mouths to do any harm; the local kids play with them like they’re nothing.  While I’m not really snake-phobic, I got creeped out at the thought of them getting caught up in my hair as they’re frequently skimming the surface of the water; so when you’re snorkeling, you need to look up and ahead, too!!

As I write this, we have just arrived in Tonga.  It was a good transit, but not a great sail.  Our sails are heavy and have been a source of frustration in light winds and so we've determined that we'll need a second, lighter set of sails unless we want to motor around the planet!  Ugh.  Just one more expense.  So we motored pretty much the whole way here but we arrived about 6 hours before the predicted weather system rolled in and we’re snug here in Neiafu’s harbour.

Photos: Niue

13 September 2013…   You Can’t Mess with Mother Nature

Very sad news this week as we learned that our friends lost their boat in Niue.  That weather system that we were running away from rolled into the exposed anchorage to wreak its havoc.  Our friends have a large catamaran and were assigned a mooring that’s appropriate for bigger commercial boats and they rode the storm out well.  Once it was past, they felt confident in going ashore for a well-deserved breakfast.  Within 20 minutes of their leaving, the shackle pin securing the line to the mooring at the bottom failed and their boat ended up on the reef ashore.  They saw it happening and rushed back out but couldn’t get there in time to do anything about it.  Fortunately, no one was hurt.  Their personal belongings inside are fine but it’s the end of the trip for them as the vessel sustained too much damage.  We were shocked to hear the news and feel just heartsick for them.  They were only a few months away from finishing their dream trip and selling the boat.  They posted video online of the salvage operation and it just made my stomach roll to see and hear the crunching as they pulled the boat off.  I can only imagine how I’d feel if that were Calico Jack in its place.  Touch wood.

They weren’t the only boat to have problems or sustain damage and we’ve heard stories of some pretty hairy crossings over the past several weeks and even more with this most recent weather system.  They call this area from the Cook Islands to Tonga “The Dangerous Middle” and you have to pick your weather windows carefully.  We’ve had no real bad weather to speak of and some would call us lucky but that’s only partly true.  Sure, sometimes you get caught out there in isolated crap but Travis keeps a careful eye on the weather for the big stuff.  And while we’re often bemoaning the fact that we have to leave someplace earlier than we want to, it’s worth it to avoid the bad weather -after all, we’re out here to have fun, not tangle with Mother Nature.  A fellow cruiser (not our friends) actually poo-pooed us in Niue for running out so quickly.  While we wish no misfortune on anyone else, it’s good to know that we’re making the right decisions.  Touch wood again.  And thanks to our onboard weather man!!

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17 September 2013…   Tonga  

The Kingdom of Tonga is the oldest and last remaining Polynesian monarchy, and the only Pacific nation never to be brought under foreign rule.  It is divided into four island groups but with so much to see, our plan is to focus all our time on the Vava’u group, reported to be the prettiest with over 40 anchorages and lots of underwater fun.  And while it’s nice to have a lovely anchorage all to yourself, sometimes it’s nice, too, to hook up with old friends and Vava’u has been a blast for that.  It’s a favourite haunt of cruisers who allot a fair amount of time here, many of them having some time to kill before heading directly to New Zealand.  The result is a family reunion of sorts as every anchorage has had at least an acquaintance or two and we've met boats that we've been hearing on the radio forever but have never crossed paths with.  It's been very social and a lot of fun.  

The capital “city” of Neiafu is a friendly town with pigs running around like stray dogs –pretty funny to see them crossing the streets like regular citizens!  The market and shops are a welcome sight after the slim pickins in Niue and there are many little bars and restaurants to chill out in, including one with an open mic night which was a hoot.  Whale watching tours are big here as well, but we already got our treat back in Aitutaki (and for free!).  It’s an easy, relaxing place to hang out and we had to rip ourselves away to go discover the rest of what this island group has to offer.  

Our first stop was Port Morelle which was perfection: a beautiful, sheltered anchorage with a fire pit on the beach all ready to go!  We enjoyed two cook-outs with friends in the evenings and spent the days exploring the island itself as well as what the ocean below had to offer.  Of particular interest was Swallow’s Cave.  It was a pretty hefty jaunt for our little 2hp eggbeater outboard motor but we made the mile by dinghy from the anchorage and it was totally worth it.   The cave is big enough that we brought the dinghy right inside and we were met with graffiti all over the limestone walls, which might disgust you until you’re informed that some of it dates back to the late 1800s.  History.  A cave system led us further in on foot and it opened up into a very large room which was the place where royalty entertained honoured guests; feasts were lowered from the gap in the roof above.  Back at the dinghy, the snorkeling was nice with a big school of a zillion tiny fish that were afraid of no-one, and a sea snake that used our anchor line to do some extracurricular exploring!  He just needs to mind his own business…  A little spearfishing on the way back left us empty-handed so we had to pull dinner out of the freezer for that night’s cookout.  Boo.

We pulled anchor and headed over to Hunga Island, the main attraction being its lovely lagoon.  We walked through the village (which took only a few minutes!) and went by the school.  The girls were cute and curious, and the boys were all in a tree, throwing oranges down to the catchers below.  We met a local lady and got a haul of fresh fruits and veggies straight from the plantation, so it was papaya on the menu!  I’m not usually a big fan of this particular fruit, but the papaya here is the sweetest, most delicious I’ve ever tasted and the 5 we got didn’t last long.  The papaya corn bread turned out great, as did the papaya salsa and some of it made its way into the blender, too!  Hunga was a pretty layover but with no underwater activities to speak of, there was only enough to keep us busy there a couple of days.  Our next stop was Lape Island.   

When we first arrived in Tonga, we asked some departing friends what their highlight was and they all agreed that it was the Lape (pronounced “lah-pay”) Island Feast.  This meal and cultural tour is held twice monthly and is geared specifically to us cruisers.  There is no fee; we pay by donation and the first part of our experience on the island is a guided tour to see how our money goes back to the community.  The very dock we landed on was only just recently built with proceeds from this project.  We were then led through the small community of well-maintained homes and gardens (there are only 6 families on the island, 8 adults and 20 kids) to a clearing where the next project will take place: a proper, functioning, modern toilet.  The Chief told us that when the kids are of an age to leave the island and head further afield for schooling, they don’t know how to use a toilet and often end up breaking them, causing great embarrassment.  Having these facilities here will teach them how to use it, and each family will take turns cleaning and maintaining it.  The things we take for granted, right?
18 August 2013…   Aitutaki:  A Surprising Little Gem!

Weather reports when leaving Bora Bora were conflicting, which left everyone changing their plans at the last minute (like, leaving-the-pass last minute!) or second guessing their decisions.  Or both.  Our original plan was to visit three of the Cook Islands:  the main island of Raritonga, then north to Aitutaki and further north to Palmerston.  A low pressure system coming up from the south made us change our minds about the main island, so we headed straight for Aitutaki.  It was a lumpy run as the winds were higher than predicted and we suffered a couple of casualties.  By Day 2, I was sporting a black eye as my face took one for the team.  We were rolling so much that a shifting box dislodged the TV screen from its base (which is screwed down) and it fell on top of me while I was sleeping –or trying to, anyway.  Now a week later, the bruise is pretty much gone but I’m going to have a nice lump there for some time!  The good news is that it missed my eyeball by an inch; and, yes folks, the TV is ok!  We’re out of 110V area, so it would have been impossible to replace.  As I said: taking one for the team.

Casualty #2 has Travis looking for bamboo again.  Only a couple of hours from our destination, a wave sent us surfing down its back side and our headsail backwinded.  Our barely-initiated, custom-made, much-coveted whisker pole had its ¼” eyebolt sheared and it shot off like a torpedo.  Given that we’d had to cut the end off to make it fit, it would have immediately filled with water and drifted below the surface –not that we would have found it in the dark, anyway.  The kicker is that we were only a half-hour away from sunrise and Travis was on the verge of waking me so we could take it down.  The upside, I guess, is that the sail didn’t rip.  Any damage at the clew would have been too much for my little sewing machine to handle.  So, Travis has become the neurotic bamboo-hunter again!

We arrived to a postage-stamp-sized anchorage and we had been worried about how many boats would already be there.  It would suck to come all that way under rough conditions only to discover that there’s no room at the inn!  We were happy to discover that there were only two boats inside, and one was a friend-boat.  The pass to enter this little anchorage is too shallow for a lot of boats to get in so I suppose that filters out a lot of would-be traffic here.  At an easy 4’6” below the water, Calico Jack sashayed in on a rising tide.

The anchorage is so small that Med mooring is required, as in Mediterranean style, where a second anchor is thrown out off the stern to keep from swinging.  Sometimes this is done right at a dock, at other times the second line is tied to a tree onshore.  In this case, there was only one tree and it was occupied so we threw our stern anchor over a rock ledge to ensure that CJ wasn’t subjected to a pinball game should the wind come up in our tiny anchorage.  And I do mean tiny.  Apparently last week they had 8 boats in here –they would have to line us up like books on a shelf!!  As it is, our friends on Osprey are close enough that we don’t use the radio to hail them –we just call over.  That’s when it’s nice to know your neighbours!  I will say, though, that this is the quietest anchorage we’ve had in ages, so quiet that we’re hearing noises we haven’t heard before.  “What’s that?” to the fridge compressor kicking in; and we can hear the little critters on the hull below the waterline.

We are loving the vibe of this little island.  There’s not a ton to do here, but just enough to keep us busy without it feeling touristy.  Coming from Key West, we’ve had our fill of the lineup of generic tourist shops.  Here there are only a couple, which is just enough; everything else is very local.  The prices on many things are less than French Polynesia, which is a welcome change.  And could it be possible that the people are even friendlier?  I wouldn’t have thought so but already we’ve seen how far they’ll go out of their way just to help you out with ride, or carry heavy things, etc.  

The week has been spent wandering around and chilling out.  We took a walk all the way to the north end to visit the Araura Marine Research Station where they have a breeding program for our beloved colourful clams: tanks and tanks of them in various sizes.  We had an interesting eclectic lunch at Tauono’s Garden Café.  All dishes are prepared from ingredients that come directly from their organic plantation.  The specialty of the house is breadfruit lasagna which was good, but I about flipped over the book she had for sale!  A full listing of local plants and trees and their medicinal and dietary benefits.  And recipes to boot, which answer a lot of my questions about how to prepare some of this local produce i.e. when is a breadfruit ripe, and how do you prepare it?  How do I make my own coconut milk and coconut cream?  Needless to say, it’s found its way in to my collection.  I was shopping for just such a book for the Pacific Islands before we left home.  Unfortunately (and ironically!) this island is pretty scant in the fruit and vegetable category, but fair warning to the first little breadfruit to cross my path!  Tauono’s Café also made Travis a happy camper as he arranged for us to pick up a new piece of bamboo next week (when we have wheels).

We returned back to the anchorage on Friday afternoon to discover that we had new neighbours, another friend boat!  Plus one more boat that was headed in.  If we thought we were close to Osprey only a few hours ago, that all changed when another boat shimmied in between us.  Anyway, more friends to add to the fun and the Blue Marble crew (8 of them) were just in time for Friday happy hour at the only accessible local bar, just a stone’s throw away from the anchorage.  It’s the Aitutaki Game Fishing Club and its bar is built inside a 20’ shipping container!  The DJ plays a weird mix from 70s classics to country.  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard so much back-to-back ABBA and Bee Gees, and Kenny Rogers!

As a final note, we’re sending a shout-out to my Dad who celebrates a milestone birthday this weekend.  Happy Birthday Dad!  The internet stinks here, so I guess I’d better give you a call or you’ll think I’ve forgotten until you read this.

Video:  Blue & Black

25 August 2013…   A Whale of a Time!

Another week of fun with friends.  A bunch of us rented scooters and we were a veritable posse as we motored over hill and dale, testing the limits of the rental equipment.  Our daredevil antics were rewarded with some great vistas and some fun off-roading!  Later that night, we took advantage of the wheels to head to the other side of the island to check out the crab races.  While others were raising their eyebrows, we had a pretty good idea of what this would entail since we have turtle races back home: you paint numbers on the critters, put them on a track and place your bets.  Well, they didn’t really hold a candle to our well-established games back in Key West, but the consolation prize was that we could take our crabs home with us.  We jumped at the chance because some of our gang couldn’t make it out.  By the time we got back to the boats, they had enough empty Heineken bottles to make an excellent racetrack so we lined them up and had our own games.  And they were much more rousing indeed!

The whole time we were in Aitutaki, we were looking for that weather window to head north to Palmerston Island but it just wasn’t appearing –at least not enough of a window to make it worth the run.  We discovered that we really dodged a bullet by passing up Raritonga: the anchorage was so rough and rolly that they had to stagger the boats so that their masts didn’t crash together in the sideways swell!  And paying an anchorage fee of $30/night for the privilege!  So Aitutaki was the only one of the Cook Islands we ended up visiting but we sat happily in our fun little anchorage, enjoying this interesting/funny little island and the good company.

The Interesting: Many homes have actual graves right in their front yards.  The cars drive around them, the kids play on them, and many are adorned with some unusual things.  We spotted one that had a whole bar setup: booze bottles and mixers, all of them remarkably untouched.  A little further along we saw a grave with a TV on it.  We figured if those two could pair up in the afterlife they’d have a great time with Sunday afternoon football!  When we asked a local about this front-yard peculiarity, we were told that there is no crown land here to have a cemetery –it’s all family owned.  When she and her husband returned to his homeland to put down permanent roots, there was a meeting called where he listed his lineage on both his parents’ sides.  Then on a map, he was shown which lands on the island belonged to his family.  Once he had chosen his plot, another meeting was called to see if his choice was contested.  He then had 5 years to build a home on it but it still didn’t belong exclusively to him –Aunt Sally could still decide to plop a little shanty right in his lovely ocean view and she’d be entitled to do so.  It is only 7 years after the house is built that he can have the property put in his own name exclusively.  We were told that the sense of family is very strong here and the average local can list their lineage back many generations on both sides, just off the top of their head.  So getting back to the graves in the front yard, it sounds like they would put them there even if they had the choice to do otherwise.  “How else do the kids get acquainted with great-grandpa and grandma?”  

The Funny:  We got a note from a friend of ours recently stating that when he passed through Aitutaki in 1984 he got drunk with the local catholic priest.  Well, as you know, times change and that sort of thing doesn’t go on anymore.  …These days, it’s with the chief of police!!  Our friends went out to the bar with him on a few occasions and I guess he was a lot of fun.  One afternoon, we got a bunch of fresh local fruit delivered to the boat –it was only a portion of what was in our neighbour’s dinghy, the result of a foray with the chief.  He lamented that not a whole lot goes on here, and it gets boring…

By the time we had the window to leave, our tiny anchorage was packed!  Nine of us were lined up inside (two were large catamarans) and three more boats were anchored just outside.  It had to have been a record!  We squeezed out of our narrow parking space and were making our way to the mouth of the skinny channel when our engine died.  Ugh.  We have an ongoing problem with an air leak in our fuel lines and just when we think we have it licked, it starts up again.  And this was a most inopportune time!  Fortunately, it wasn’t a panic situation because the winds were light and I steered with the momentum we had until Travis got us roaring again and off we went without a hitch.   

Once outside the channel, we were met with another surprise, this time, a most pleasant one.  We were just finished securing everything on deck and ready to head off when we heard a giant splash behind us.  We turned around to see a huge crater of a wake and we both simultaneously thought, “What was that?!” and then, “WHALE!!!”  We were running for cameras and a good line of sight just as he breached again –spectacular!!  He hung out with us for about half an hour during which we were treated to some tail-slapping and more breaching.  At one point we lost him, only to find him following the boat.  He got freakishly close to our stern –this guy was bigger than Calico Jack!- and I put away the camera in case he tail slapped again and soaked us.  He then came up to our starboard quarter, about 8ft away, and dove under the boat.  It was at this point that Travis accidentally fell in the water with mask, snorkel, fins and a camera…  The whale crossed under the boat one more time before diving to oblivion.  It was truly incredible to be that up close and personal with such a mammoth creature, and while others pay hundreds to go out on cattle boats to find them, we had our own free show.  Amazing.
2012: A Sea Odyssey
S/V Calico Jack
2012: A Sea Odyssey
Cook Islands to Australia
Before dinner, we were educated on their local traditions and industry as the Chief demonstrated how they harvest coconuts and use the fronds from the trees for their weaving, and the history behind it.  Coconut drinks in hand, we made our way down to the beach for dinner cooked in the traditional earthen oven.  A pig in the ground: is there anything better?  Dinner was served on a section of palm tree, kind of like your own personal little trough but with open ends so you had to be careful not to spill the goods!  The after-dinner entertainment was simple, but charming, as the Chief and his wife sang a lively traditional song.  It was a great experience and it felt really good knowing that we were contributing to the well-being of this community; we were thanked many times over for attending.  What a great idea the Chief had for bettering the way-of-life for his community.  It has obviously been a huge success.

Photo by Sue Campbell
But the biggest treat of all in Makogai was a performance put on by the local children, a fundraiser for their school field trip.  They danced as their parents sang and played guitar and even the wee ones got in on the action!  It was well-performed and absolutely adorable.  I truthfully told the chief that we enjoyed it far more than some other performances we’ve paid top dollar for at fancy resorts, and we donated generously. 
Photo by Charlotte Braithwaite
What made tiny Likuri Island a necessary stop is the Robinson Crusoe Resort and their reputation for a top-notch Island Night.  We’ve been to a number of these feasts now, cooked in the traditional earthen oven with a dancing show to follow but the performers here are well-known for putting on a great show.  The resort is small and intimate and the dancers are in fact employees of the hotel!  You got a real sense that they were a little family and one employee we spoke to about the show said, “I don’t know why our show is so much better than others…  I guess it’s because they really love doing it!”  And it shows, as they certainly didn’t disappoint.  The fire dancers were throwing blazing batons over the rooftop and flinging fire around, blindfolded.  Their finale included a human pyramid, a real show of strength and balance.  Both men and women performed in various styles, some of which we hadn’t seen before, and all acts were characterized by an energy and zeal that transported the show to its very end.   Great performances all around, we were really wowed.  
Photo by Charlotte Braithwaite
Checking in was not as simple as just going ashore.  We had to travel by land to Lenekal on the other side of the island via 4x4 truck over a lumpy road.  It was slow going but it included some lovely vistas and interesting terrain as we crossed through the black ash fields near the volcano.  She sputtered and coughed out big black clouds of smoke, never leaving us with a dull moment.  After more than two hours of being shaken about like a martini, we arrived to the customs office in Lenekal only to discover that they are absent this week!  Baffled, we wandered around the surprisingly sparse capital, picked up a few supplies and endured the lumpy ride back to Port Resolution.  Were it not for the island tour, it would have been pretty much a whole wasted day but we thoroughly enjoyed the roadside markets and the friendly locals who always had a wave and a hello as we passed.  As per check-in procedures, we were told to come back again at the end of the week. (Sigh!).  The journey had cost us $50 so it was something we weren’t anxious to repeat.
New Caledonia was meant as only a brief, utilitarian stop to prepare for the crossing to Australia.  It’s been mostly boat chores (checks, repairs, oil changes) and closely monitoring the weather for our window of opportunity to take off.  As we wait, we’ve taken a wander around some of the city’s sights: the cultural museum, the maritime museum and a walking tour of the city’s historic buildings.  But the best time was Travis’ 40th birthday bash!  We had a wine and tapas party on the boat and while Travis said that the theme was due to his getting older and more refined, the plain truth is that decent wine is pretty cheap here!  We crammed a record 9 people inside our main cabin and had a great night, reconnecting with old cruising friends and making a new one, too.  It was a lot of fun!
The zoo is open 9am to 4:30pm and we used up every second of it –there was so much to see.  For local favourites, the dingoes and tasmanian devils were asleep in their holes that day but our timing was spot on for great visits with the koalas!  The kangaroos were roaming free waiting for a handout and we also saw echidnas, wombats, lizards of every size and of course, the crocodiles.  I’ve never been a big birdwatcher, but there’s such an interesting variety here.  Huge and small, some are very colourful and  others have some very interesting songs –one even sounds like a monkey!  And don’t forget the room full of snakes, many of them the most venomous in the world.  Asia was well-represented with otters, giant tortoises, the komodo dragon, the red panda (only got a small peek at them) and a beautiful Sumatra tiger.  The Africa section was home to camels, cheetahs, zebras, rhinos and giraffes. 
“Everybody here is doing well, CJ included!  Of course, we have our share of boat problems but that's just par for the course.  The new transmission is holding out so far, touch wood, but we're not expecting it to last the trip.  SO tired of that problem.  The problem I'm the most exasperated with is the air lock in our fuel lines.  It's been a hiccup for years, and we thought we had it licked but it now seems to be worse than ever.  What makes it the most exasperating problem of all is the stress it causes.  It will run problem-free for 10 hours but when we go to pull into an anchorage or mooring field it will crap out the engine right when we're in the middle of a bunch of boats we don't want to hit.  It's giving me grey hairs and I fear it's going to get us into trouble at some -hopefully not up on a reef!  We're still working on it but the only real solution is to replace the whole fuel system and I'm not sure when that can happen.  Ugh.

Other problems include leaky water tanks -a problem because we have no water maker to readily replenish them!  A finnicky autopilot.  And oh -we'll have to buy a whole new set of sails: mainsail, headsail and spinnaker.  Our sails are too heavy for lighter winds and we can't afford to motor around the planet!  But this is all live-and-learn.  We know that we'll be skidding back into Key West sideways and basically rebuilding the boat from scratch.  

As far as the trip itself, you ask?  That's a good, and interesting question.  Well, I guess it's pretty much what I expected.  With the exception of the really long passages, we did all this back in 2007.  Sort of.  The Pacific has its own particular set of challenges like the REALLY long passages (did I mention the REALLLLYYYY long passages?!) and it does require a special skill set in places like say, the Tuamotus in French Polynesia where you have some tricky entrances to tangle with (meaning, the atoll islands where you have to enter via a pass with strong currents which can get sketchy.  Especially with an air lock in your fuel system = more grey hairs!!).  I'm glad to have a knowledgeable, experienced and talented (not to mention, cute!) captain aboard but there are guys out here learning as they go.  It's amazing, and not the sort of trip I'd want to cut my teeth on, but good for them.  Really.  It takes balls.

Also a challenge on a trip like this is the stresses it can put on a relationship.  Travis and I are solid, thank goodness, but it's not rare to see couples hollering at each other as they're anchoring.  How embarrassing.  Travis and I have anchoring down to a set of hand signals, vowing never to be the screaming head-cases we often see.  Neither do our hand signals involve a middle finger, either, ha ha!!  I think this will have to go in a blog one day...  Anyway, we're good but we've seen the stresses a relationship goes through and we've unfortunately witnessed more than one breakup.  Or voyages that end early because one of the two can't handle the trip.  Two boat sales we've seen on that account.

I guess my only crisis point happened when we were getting close to going through the Canal.  I was still getting very seasick at that point and we were on the cusp of our first longer transit, about 10 days to the Galapagos.  Also, you're pretty much committed once you go through the Canal, aren't you?!  This is the point on the trip where I fully realized how much we had bitten off.  We'd spent so much time rushing around to get ready that I hadn't really stopped to ponder how big the planet is and that we were about to circumnavigate it on a 35', bouncing cork!  Never did I ever consider aborting the trip, though, but Travis did.  He said that we could just do the Caribbean instead, but for me that wasn't ever an option.  It wasn't going to be 10 years of preparation for such a letdown, especially because this was his dream trip (I wonder if he'd ever have forgiven me!!).  Of course, he was looking at 3 years with a puking grouch, so maybe he would have considered it the lesser of two evils!  Anyway, here we are, a third of the way around the big world and doing fine.  I credit this mostly to Travis, though.  Apart from his skill set, he has the patience of Job.”
20 December 2013…   Preliminary Musings from an Australia Newbie

“… the following are all real places: Wee Waa, Poowong, Burrumbottock, Suggan Buggan, Boomahnoomoohan, Waaia, Mullumbimby, Ewlyamartup, Jiggalong, and the supremely satisfying Tittybong.”   Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

Our Lonely Planet is filled with names like these.  Undoubtedly they are Aboriginal in origin so I mean no disrespect but all those vowels and consonants mushed together are a mouthful!   Mooloolaba was the first but certainly not the last Australian city name we will butcher.  It’s pronounced “muh-LOO-luh-bah” but with a sing-songy lilt more like “m’-LOO-l’-bah.  A shade more chic than our rendition.  Having just come from so many Polynesian and Melanesian countries where they pronounce every consonant and every vowel (sometimes twice!) we were calling it “moo-loo-LAH-bah” in four chunky syllables which is more than a bit redneck by comparison (so be sure to add the appropriate twang!).  I’m certain we made more than one local giggle before we figured it out.  Having heard it, my friend Aimee now chooses to call it nothing else.

But not all the interesting place names here make you feel like you have a mouth full of marbles.  Some are just plain fun and we’ve already encountered a number of them during our few short weeks: Coochiemudlo Island, Karragarra W’s, Tipplers Passage, Brown’s Gutter, Tin Can Bay and Groper Island.  Further afield in our travels we may encounter Wagga Wagga, Broken Hill, Mt. Baw Baw, Hat Head, The Bungle Bungles, Humpty Doo, Dinner Plain, Sale, Monkey Mia, Booti Booti National Park, Mt. Remarkable, Nightcap National Park (which has a smaller picnic spot aptly named Rummery Park) and the delightful Jamberoo.  And not to be outdone are Wooloomooloo, Curl Curl, Dee Why and the adorable Punchbowl.  Reading a map makes you smile.  Of course, Saskatchewan has Eyebrow and Elbow, so I’m not throwing stones.  But at least you can pronounce them.

Australians have also earned their own dictionary listing in the back of our guidebook.  It is several pages of words and expressions to help you get about the country without squinting at the locals and thinking to yourself, “Aren’t we both supposed to be speaking English?”  Be prepared for some confusion here, too, because terms vary from state to state.  A swimsuit is a “cozzie” in New South Wales, but “bathers” in Victoria and “togs” in Queensland.  The locals are Taswegians, Cockroaches, Mexicans, Croweaters, Sand Gropers or Banana Benders depending on the location and they’ll be watching football (footy), rugby league or Aussie Rules, accordingly.  Ordering a beer is a puzzle: a “middy” and a “pot” are the same 10oz size but reside in different states and a “schooner” could be the same 10oz size OR the same as a 15oz pint, depending on where you are.  Throw imperial pints, “butchers” and “ponies” into the equation and crikey!  It’s a real mess!  Maybe I’ll just order a stubby or a tinny and play it safe (anyway, they fit better in the esky).  Regardless, you’d best mind your piss because someone could really crack the shits/do their block with a two-pot screamer in any case (and nobody likes looking like a bogan/booner/bevan/chiga/yobbo, do they?).  

Australians are quite fashionable dressers for the most part.  And the fashion over here is SHORT.  Short skirts and short shorts, even the guys’ shorts tend to be shorter.  Apparently this is a fashion trend that they tried to introduce in North America a couple of years back and it just didn’t take hold but “they” believe that it will soon catch on.  So put away your boardshorts, boys, your tan line is about to explore more northern territory!  And ladies, you’ll be sporting clothing more revealing than your swimwear.  I swear, I’ve seen more butts hanging out the bottoms of dresses, skirts and shorts than… well, than.  It’s become blatantly obvious that we’ve spent a lot of time in some very conservative countries recently (I mean, I’m from Key West where people marching around in very little is a pretty common thing).  But coming from South Pacific islands where ladies can’t expose shoulders, knees, or even wear pants, I felt very naked the first time I was able to acceptably wear a pair of shorts again.  It’s taking some getting used to being back in the modern world, I guess (quit staring!!).

I don’t know how they do it, though, because this country is bloody cold!!  This is their summer yet on more than one occasion we’ve checked the weather back home to find that Key West is warmer on a winter day than Australia is on a “summer” day!!  It’s unbelievable!  We’ve been bundled up in the cockpit underway, and sleeping under a stack of blankets at anchor.  Sweaters, sweatpants and hot toddies have been pulled out of the recesses of the boat.  And the goop I spilled on my laptop way back in May must be icing up because my keyboard has started to stick!  However, I shouldn’t complain.  We were recently in a café and heard someone say that there was one helluva cold snap going on in Saskatoon.  Yep, halfway around the world and I’m hearing that my homeland is looking at temperatures of -57 C!  Now THAT’S insanity, and I’ll take Australian “summer”, thank you very much!

Australian Plus, No. 25: the public spaces are awesome and we continue to be impressed by the facilities.  There are green spaces a’plenty and they’re clean and well-groomed.  Public restrooms abound, even in the cities, and the beachside facilities always include showers for rinsing off.  Many of the parks have playgrounds for the kids and some are even equipped with gas BBQs for general use -just press the button for gas and clean up before you leave.  And people do, for the most part.  These are perks that would just be abused in other places but Australians seem to appreciate their green spaces because they use them, and they leave them tidy.  It’s impressive.

But the best, best thing about Australia so far is how very friendly the people are.  I’d have to speak to a local about how they are to each other but from a tourist’s perspective, everyone has been nothing but welcoming and extremely helpful.  “We just want youse to have a good time!” commented one local and they do their very best to make it so, whether it falls into their job description or not.  Local cruisers have been up for a chat and a “cuppa”, bringing out the charts to show us all the best cruising grounds.  We had one guy chatting to us alongside our boat, on his paddleboard with his kid, and somehow he ended up offering us his car for the afternoon (total strangers!!).  Bartenders have been cheerful and funny, displaying a charming, self-deprecating humour that any Canadian can appreciate.  And even when trapped in throngs of people, like the Christmas week shopping rush, it seemed a lot less mad than it usually is at home as people still seemed relaxed and cheerful right down to the wire (I was pretty amazed at this, actually!).

So, while there are some quirky, backwards, and even frustrating things about this place that you wouldn’t expect from a “civilized” country, Australia certainly has been good to us and we’re diggin’ it!

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02 February 2014…   The Holidays & Sydney

Confession: I’ve been remiss in my duties.  I haven’t put pen to paper or fingers to keypad in the last several weeks to keep this blog updated, not even the usual notes I take.  The time simply got away from us.  After Mooloolaba we made a beeline for Sydney in hopes of arriving in time for Christmas.  It was all daytripping which was nice -there’s a lot to be said for dropping the anchor and getting a good sleep every night!  Our only stop of any length was 4 days in Coff’s Harbour as we waited on weather, but it was no huge sacrifice as we discovered it was a nice city with a lot of amenities for a smaller centre.  We found a conveniently-located computer guy to look at my beast and give his diagnosis.  I was holding my breath that I wouldn’t have to be out plundering the Boxing Day sales for a new one because Boxing Day is an institution for me: one of fun and relaxation! (I can't believe the US hasn't figured out some holiday for the 26th of December because who wants to go into work the day after Christmas?!)  Anyway, the results weren’t bad but not great.  The poor boy is just getting old and the technician described the symptoms accordingly:

Me: “Please pull up this document.”  

Computer: “Ok.  Just let me get the kettle off the stove first.  Then… oh heck, where did I put that cup?  Wait, I need to go the bathroom –was that the door?  Oh, nobody’s there.  Geez, did I feed the cat today?  Now where’s the sugar for the tea.  Wait………What did you ask me to do?  Oof, I need a nap.”  

Things just don’t last like they used to, we all know that.  This Acer is only 3 years old.  My old Dell kept on ticking for 7 years in a marine environment, even after a good rainwater soaking.  In fact, I still have it tucked away and it still works, just slowly.  I dislike this chuck-away generation.

From Coff’s Harbour we did a two-day run straight into Sydney.  I’ll mention again how strange it’s been cruising into a skyscraper skyline –then add manic Sydney Harbour to the mix.  The holidays had everyone and their dog out on their boats and it required some extra diligence to get us to our anchorage safely without playing bumper boats.  Craziness!  But after an hour’s dodging, we plopped ourselves in a nice little bay with easy access to downtown on foot and, best of all, right next to our friends Jess & Duncan on Alliance.  

We arrived on the 20th, in plenty of time to get some Christmas shopping done and the rest of the lights up!  Anyone who knows me knows that there’s no way I could go without at least putting up a few strings of lights for the holidays and I found some great solar lights that fit the bill.  The holidays were a blast as cruising friends came out of the woodwork.   Both Alliance and Calico Jack had guests aboard.  Then another friend showed up looking for a bunk.  Then sailboat Lady Lostris showed up.  Then friends of friends started showing up!  THEN I found out that my friend from way back (and I mean waaaayyyyy back in elementary school!) is still here!!  It ended up being quite the reunion.  

It rained on Christmas day so we ditched the BBQ plans and chilled on Alliance.  On Boxing Day, we moved the boats to nearby Manly and celebrated Swedish Christmas as our guest Toby had brought along a smorgasbord of meatballs and pickled fish and potatoes and beets and, and, and!  We were entertained with Swedish songs and toasts and the whole genuine shebang.  What fun.

Over the next few days, we bounced from anchorage to anchorage within Sydney Harbour (it’s huge!) and finally settled in Athol Bay in time to procure a good spot from which to watch the fireworks.  When we first arrived in Oz, we were telling the marina staff about our plans for the fireworks and they were wowed.  I guess they see the ton of boats in the foreground when they watch the fireworks on TV and were kind of in awe that we would actually be there.  It’s pretty neat when the locals think we're doing something exotic in their own country and they pay a LOT of money to get out there on the water on New Year’s Eve.  Little Calico Jack was humbled and proud to be in attendance.  We were glad we had arrived early as the anchorage began to fill up and it got insane very quickly as others crammed in to small spaces that would otherwise be unacceptable.  It was pretty tight and we stayed aboard just to ensure that nobody hit us!
Athol Bay when we arrived in the morning. 
Photo by Toby Ytterman
Mayhem, and it gets worse by sunset.                                 Photo: Google Images
We had a 3-boat raft-up for the event and well, what can’t you say about world-class fireworks?  The bridge and the opera house were the main features but they had 6 barges positioned along the harbour all synchronized to each other and to music.   At a cost of $6.8 million, they were spectacular, needless to say.

After the holidays were over and everyone returned to their “regular” lives we sat down and made our list for January.  Having decided to spend the month in Sydney rather than rushing off to tour around, we want to have the boat ready to go when we get back.  The projects ended up being more numerous than we had anticipated (as they do) but none are deal breakers.  We whittled away at the list all while trying to squeeze in some fun on the side.

For a big city, Sydney is simply lovely.  It is a sprawling mass of a thing but as “The City of Villages”, it is made up of many little compartmentalized communities each with their own unique character.  If you lived there, you’d never need to leave your little area.  As such, we, who are not normally fans of big cities, found Sydney quite manageable and pleasant.  Our nearby community of Glebe was utterly charming with its funky coffee shops and second-hand bookstores.  Just down the road was a huge shopping centre with anything you could dream of needing.  The dentist, the computer store (yes, had to buy one), the Apple store and many more necessities were ticked off our list locally and only a little further afield was the marine store we needed.  The list was coming along.

The fun stuff was mostly in the downtown area which was only about a 40-minute walk away.  And we walked a LOT in Sydney!  It is also very hilly so at the end of the month, I feel like I’m in much better condition than I was when we arrived!  The exercise feels great and we got out often as there is much to occupy your time in Sydney (and distract you from your to-do list!).  We visited the Maritime Museum which was an all-day event.  They have a life-size replica of the Endeavour (Captain Cook’s boat) that you can climb aboard; plus a submarine, plus a patrol boat, plus a battleship, plus a Viking ship.  They had a Viking exhibition going on at the time as well as their regular features: sailing, rowing, and swimming; a large section about the Navy and the World Wars; and sections dedicated to the Aboriginal people and another to the nation’s immigrants.  It was a lot to take in. Having arrived only an hour after opening, we were still chased out at closing time!

The zoo and aquarium were nice -but I think we’ve been spoiled by the Steve Irwin Zoo.  The natural history museum was fantastic, though.  Their rotating exhibition right now is “Tyrannosaurs” and their star attraction is a replica of a T-Rex named Scotty… from Saskatchewan!  I’s so proud!  Also of interest was a whole section dedicated to Aboriginal culture and art; a room full of bugs, birds and mineral ore found here in Australia; a section called “Skeletons” of every variety you can imagine (fish, snakes, humans, elephants, horses, giraffes, exoskeletons of various marine guys; there was also a skin-and-fur-ON exhibit of strange creatures I didn’t even know existed here –many of them extinct now. Of particular interest was an area called “Surviving Australia”.  To put it in a nutshell, everything in Australia is out to kill you.  The country is home to many varieties of the most venomous snakes on the world, not to mention spiders, jellyfish and the pretty little blue-ringed octopus that will put you in your grave in short order.  Their venom can take down several elephants at a time.  Scarier yet is the saltwater crocodile –you don’t even see that guy coming!  I’ll take a shark over a saltie any day –oh yeah, they have plenty of those here, too.  Even the cute little platypus can sting you!  But people live here, so I guess we stand a chance of getting out of this country alive (don’t worry, Mom!).

What else…  Madame Tussaud’s wax museum for some fun photos.  The Sydney Tower has great views from 250 metres (820ft) above the city.  We checked out Chinatown and got our fix of dumplings and Korean chow (kimchi stew, how I’ve missed you!).  Sydney’s parks are beautiful of course, and the free walking tour took us through historic districts and past many of the city’s landmarks.  Add to all of this the Sydney Festival which lasts almost the whole month of January plus the Lunar New Year’s celebrations and there seems to be always something going on, and a lot of it for free.  Not that the Australians need an occasion to celebrate and have events.  Darling Harbour is a hub of activity year-round and they have fireworks every Saturday night.  Just because.  They’re not second-rate fireworks either!   Sydneysiders sure do love their fireworks.

There’s still plenty that we want to see and do in Sydney but it was time to get Calico Jack up to Pittwater (16 miles north) to secure her spot for the next couple of months while we’re off gallivanting.  As I type this, it’s time to go pack as we’re headed out the door to Sydney again this afternoon to take in the Lunar New Year parade (yay, dragons on a stick!) and then we fly out to New Zealand tomorrow for the next chapter of our adventure: a 7-week campervan tour.

I had grand aspirations of getting photos updated this past month but it just didn’t happen.  It’s taken a lot to just keep my head above water with the blogs so I’ll have to ask you all to be patient with me on that score.  The computer is staying home for this trip but we’ll see what I can accomplish with Travis’ itty-bitty-keyboard computer and the online version of the website builder.  I’ll do my very best.  

We wish you all a very Happy 2014 in your respective corners of the world!  See you on the flip side –gotta run!

Photos: Australia -Southbound (coming soon...)
Key West to The GalapagosPuddle Jump & French PolynesiaCook Islands to Oz
New ZealandOz to IndonesiaIndian Ocean to S. Africa
Africa OverlandCape to CaribbeanWindwards & Leewards
The Backyard

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